This post focuses on the basics of stem cell-based treatment options: the pure essentials of MEDIGO's offering. Here's what you'll learn from reading:
- You'll see what stem cells are all about and why we need them.
- You'll learn how this ties into a field called regenerative medicine.
- Finally, we get to the very heart of what MEDIGO's stem cell partner clinics utilize to treat our patients: mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs)
What are Stem Cells?
As a rule, your body has cells for specific reasons – they have functions to fulfill. Your bone cells fulfill a structural function so your body wouldn't be a soft mass. Your neurons, if you're lucky, fulfill a thinking function. Your muscle cells contract so you could move – walk, lift, smile, hug – whatever.
Stem cells, on the other hand, are a type of completely unspecialized cells. Basically, stem cells haven't yet decided what they want to become when they grow up. But they do have a crazy potential!
You can imagine stem cells in humans acting the same way as certain tree bark cells when a new branch starts to grow – these initially "faceless" cells divide and differentiate into many layers of bark as well as leaves, and finally even blossoms.
This means that stem cells are both primitive and powerful.
- Regenerate themselves endlessly
- Differentiate into functional cells
The stem cells' differentiation ability is different depending on the cell. Some stem cells can develop into any possible cell and even a whole human. Some can only develop into a specific set of tissues, and some only a single type of new cell.
If you're interested to know why these differences happen, the answer lies in your DNA.
Let's make another comparison: cells are like smartphones. They fulfill different functions in the hands of different individuals. Some of the functions remain the same almost always (alarm clock, WhatsApp), but only some people use their phones for other, more specific functions (news or music streaming apps). It's the same with cells. Cellular DNA is similar to the operation system of your smartphone. The OS of the phone has the ability to download all different kinds of apps that make the smartphone YOUR phone. In a cell, DNA helps to produce ("download") different biologic substances ("apps") that give the cell its face and function.
Stem cells make great use of this potential – they literally go nuts and download whatever apps they want to become whoever they want. Meanwhile, regular body cells use only a tiny part of this potential and go for the obvious: same old, no surprises.
If you want to learn even more, here's something for you.
Why do we have stem cells?
When we are children, stem cells help us to grow and develop. As adults, stem cells are mostly there to support us when we're injured or sick – to replace or regenerate damaged tissues.
Healthcare professionals consider stem cells as an alternative to pharmaceuticals and other widespread methods: they could help us heal damaged, sick tissues and body parts. This is why this field of medicine is called regenerative medicine.
This four-minute TED-Ed video provides a good introduction to regenerative medicine:
Conventional medicine can do tons of things for which we can be grateful. On top of that, stem cell treatment is currently quite expensive and hard to access – not many countries have clinics for that. However, there are a variety of conditions and diseases that:
- Have no existing cure nor even alleviating treatment options
- Are treated with drugs that cause nasty side effects
- Find only temporary resolve from conventional medicine
Such conditions include, for example:
- Neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer's, Parkinson's)
- Vascular diseases (stroke, heart problems)
- Many orthopedic conditions (especially osteoarthritis)
- Autoimmune diseases
- Different types of cancer
And so on… All of these areas (and many more) could potentially be advanced with stem cell therapies. Fortunately, scientists across the world are working hard to substantiate these hopes – there are hundreds of research programs and several medical areas demonstrate promising results (e.g., orthopedics and stroke).
Why is the use of stem cells still so restricted if they're so magical?
Stem cell research is time- and resource-consuming. As with regular drugs, the safety and effectiveness of this treatment method must be established before routine clinical use. This can take up to 15 years. This is one of the main reasons why there are not many approved options out there – yet.
Additionally, since stem cells are sourced from a human body, there have been various ethical debates on if we can even use those cells. The main reason is that the most powerful and helpful stem cells come from the human embryo. To get those cells, however, the embryo must be dismantled – destroyed. Many believe it is better not to do that. Moreover, where do you even get that many embryos to treat all the ill people? It's tough. On top of everything, this dilemma has been used as a political instrument – this has resulted in several stem cell research halts.
But people still need access to these therapies. And there are other options…
Meet adipose-derived mesenchymal stem cells!
As mentioned earlier, our stem cells have different "powers". It is difficult to beat the versatility of embryonic stem cells, but adult stem cells come very close, especially since we can get them from any patient and they are useful for many organs!
MEDIGO's partner clinics (Knee & Hip Institute in Munich, Okyanos in Bahamas) have started using mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) for these reasons. MSCs are multipotent adult stem cells and they play a vital role in the regeneration of our bones, muscles, cartilage, and other body structures. Depending on the organ or tissue where MSCs are located, they can develop into specific functional cells and in this way repair damages, for instance, in our knees or hearts.
Why are MSCs the simplest option for MEDIGO patients?
MSCs can be sourced from many places. The easiest way, so far, seems to be getting those cells from the adipose (i.e. fat) tissue. It's a rich source of stem cells, and thanks to existing liposuction procedures, it's more convenient and affordable than alternatives.
Moreover, in this way, the cells can be easily isolated from the patient's own body. This means that first off, we can get access to the cells fast (unlike with regular donor process) and the immunological match is pretty much guaranteed (unlike with donor cells). Double win! (The immunological match reduces the risk of transplant rejection [otherwise a normal immunological reaction meant for fighting against foreign viruses and bacteria]. Thanks to this, the treatment success rate is significantly higher.)